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SCIENCE Study shows adolescent smartphone addiction can lead to ADHD, Anxiety, Social Apathy and Depression

Published 05 Jan 2018 11:23AM

Words by Joellie Hale

We have on our hands an epidemic. The emergence of a new species of human. If you’ve left the safety of your home recently, chances are, you’ve had to give way to an incoming zombie. If you haven’t, you’ve probably been infected.

Entranced by the world in their hands, isolated and unaware of their surroundings. An encounter can rapidly escalate into a mildly bashed shoulder and, if you’re lucky, a vaguely grunted apology. Fortunately, these creatures are slow, so injuries are usually minor. These zombies aren’t overly likely to chase you down the street.

Last month, research presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found that this disconnection may go beyond simply taking a moment to adjust back to reality.

Dr Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, and his colleagues gained unique insight into the brains of smartphone and internet-addicted teenagers. Using Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS), they compared the chemical composition of the brains of 19 adolescents (mean age 15.5, 10 females) diagnosed with the addiction with 19 gender and age-matched healthy controls.

The diagnosis was procured by standardised internet and smartphone addiction tests investigating the extent to which internet and smartphone use affect daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

The results showed an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), and glutamate-glutamine (Glx). Basically, Glx excites the body’s central and peripheral nervous systems, and GABA counters the effects of excessive neuron excitement. GABA calms the body and the mind. However, excess GABA can have the paradoxical effect of increasing anxiety.

Dr Seo found that in the technology-addicted teenagers, the balance of GABA to Glx was significantly skewed: there was far too much GABA. He believes increased GABA in internet and smartphone-addicted individuals may be related to the functional loss of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.

Symptoms are not limited to anxiety, though. Excessive GABA is thought to trigger: anger, apathy, aggression, verbal outbursts, impaired memory, reduced inhibition, reduced awareness, reduced motivation, dissatisfaction with life, and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Excessive GABA can also inhibit the effect of other neurotransmitters, such as feel-good dopamine and norepinephrine. Low levels of these chemicals may lead to depression and hypotension (too low blood pressure) and cause symptoms of ADHD: difficulty solving problems, planning ahead, understanding the actions of others and controlling impulses.

While the study is small and as yet uncited, the results are significant and certainly call for further research.

If you, or someone you know, is showing the zombie-like signs of a GABA imbalance, you will be pleased to know that the ratios significantly decreased or normalised following cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Previous studies have found that the mere presence of a smartphone can affect cognitive functioning. A major concern is the development of shorter attention spans in the current generation due to increased use, from a younger age. The long-term implications of this reduced ability to focus during cognitive development are currently being extensively studied.

Experts fear that some may grow up incapable of achieving a state of flow. In psychology, flow refers to being immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Of course, it is not just teenagers that fall prey to the addictive allure of the smartphone. One in ten American adults confessed to checking their smartphone during sex. For people aged 18-34, a remarkable one in five admitted to this atrocity. What kind of sex are these people having that it is tempting, perhaps even preferable, to check their smartphones?

While we may prefer to avoid thinking about this, indeed thinking at all, let’s bite the bullet for a moment and imagine. You’re struggling to recall that fact you learned the other day. Desperately trying to force your brain to remember… frustrated… you catch a glimpse of your phone on the table.

It is now virtually impossible to remember the information, as your naughty brain has actively realised it could just look it up. And why shouldn’t you Google it! This is excruciating, and Google will no doubt provide a more detailed, impressive answer. But, surely, it will be harder to remember next time, as your vague efforts to recall were in vain and unrewarded. And you’ll miss out on the sweet satisfaction of remembering.

Of course, your smartphone is your friend, your companion. Your life-line to the virtual world, and constant communication with those you love. You can basically take your pick of the various immediate gratifications on offer: flash games, social media, internet browsing.

These platforms are literally designed to hook you in. They offer refuge from a situation you would rather avoid; an awkward social gathering; a walk along a street you have seen before; and even, an unhappy mind. They provide relief from solitude.

Never alone, are we even forgetting how to think? What are we afraid of?

In one study, some participants chose to give themselves a painful electric shock,
rather than sit alone, without their smartphone, for just 15 minutes.

They physically hurt themselves to avoid spending time with their thoughts.

Can you remember the last time you spent time truly alone? And, no, watching TV by yourself, or reading a book, does not count. This does not grant the thinker freedom to roam. The unrestricted wandering of the brain, while sometimes unsettling – all the more so if you suffer from smartphone addiction – is essential for creativity.

The reward you will get from relishing time alone with your thoughts is much, much richer than any instant gratification from games or social media. Once you have adjusted to the true silence of solitude, you will be amazed at what you have been missing.


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